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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 02/ 4/2008

Hillary vs Barack on Meeting Dictators

By Michael Dobbs

CNN/YouTube debate, July 24, 2007

"I said early in this campaign I would meet not just with our friends, but with our enemies. Not just with those we like, but those that we don't...Senator Clinton said, 'oh no, that'd be naive, that'd be irresponsible.' I said, 'remember what John F. Kennedy said, he said 'you should never negotiate out of fear, but you should never fear to negotiate.'"
--Barack Obama, Florence, SC, Jan. 25, 2008.

During the run-up to Super Tuesday, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton re-ignited an old argument about negotiating with foreign leaders. The dispute goes back to an exchange in a CNN/YouTube debate in July 2007, when each candidate was asked whether he/she would agree to meet the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea "without precondition during the first year of your administration." Obama said 'yes'; Clinton replied 'no.' You can see the full exchange above.

Since last July, and particularly the last few days, both candidates have sought to put their own very different spin on that exchange. Let's take a look behind the war of words.

The Facts

Obama has tried to argue that Clinton is an adherent of the "Bush-Cheney doctrine [of] not talking to leaders we don't like." [Wilmington, De., speech, February 3, 2008.] But that is a distortion of what she actually said in the CNN/YouTube debate last July. Here is the relevant exchange from that debate:

QUESTION FROM VOTER: Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous. Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses...

CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will pursue very vigorous diplomacy.
And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.

In other words, Clinton disagrees with the initial Bush/Cheney doctrine of not talking to countries like North Korea, Iran, and Syria, and wants a "vigorous diplomatic effort" with those nations. (The Bush administration has also changed its position on talking to rogue states, such as North Korea.) But she will not commit herself to meetings with the leaders of those countries "without precondition" during the first year of her administration.

The Clinton camp, meanwhile, points out that John F. Kennedy never promised to meet with Nikita Khrushchev "without precondition." Here is what JFK actually said during one of his famous televised debates with Richard Nixon:

On the question of the summit, I agree with the position of Mr. Nixon. I would not meet Mr. Khrushchev unless there were some agreements at the secondary level, foreign ministers or ambassadors, which would indicate that the meeting would have some hope of success or a useful exchange of ideas.

Clinton, meanwhile, has also twisted Obama's words. During the Jan. 31, 2008, debate in Hollywood, she said the following:

I think that we've got to have a full diplomatic effort [with countries we don't agree with], but I don't think the president should put the prestige of the presidency on the line in the first year to have meetings without preconditions with five of the worst dictators in the world.

But Obama did not exactly promise to meet with five of the worst dictators in the world "without preconditions." He said he would be "willing" to meet with them, which is slightly different. As he later made clear, he too, believes that any presidential meeting should be preceded by lower-level negotiations. He explained his position in a conference call with reporters several days after the CNN/YouTube debate:

"Nobody expects that you would suddenly just sit down with them for coffee without having done the appropriate groundwork...But the question was: Would you meet them without preconditions? And part of the Bush doctrine has been to say no."

The Obama camp is now arguing that there is a significant difference between "preparations" and "preconditions" when it comes to talking to dictators. Preconditions are bad; preparations are good.

The Pinocchio Test

The actual positions of Obama and Clinton on talking to foreign leaders are closer than might be imagined from these exchanges. It might be a little more difficult for Kim Jong Il to get an audience with Hillary than Barack, but he stands a better chance with either than he did with George W. Bush. Both Obama and Clinton have taken each other's actual words out of context. On this occasion, the Obama spin seems a little more egregious than the Clinton spin, so two Pinocchios for him:

One Pinocchio for her.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | February 4, 2008; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  1 Pinocchio, 2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Watch, Other Foreign Policy  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Clinton and the Iraq Vote
Next: Who is the Champion Flip-flopper?


barack obama is right. his instincts are good and he trusts them, which makes it easier to trust him than those who second guess or look around the room for reactions before speaking. maria shriver knows. (my guess is that arnold does too, secretly, although he would be finished as a republican if he were to say so. c'mon arnold, switch parties. join the future!!

Posted by: ted quinn | February 4, 2008 1:08 PM | Report abuse

How about fact-checking Barrak passing Exelon bill.

Posted by: Chief | February 4, 2008 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm confused. The fact checker doesn't identify or specify any'spin' or inaccurate statement(s) made by Obama, and then goes on to give him more Pinocchios than Hillary. It's pretty clear that Hillary desparately tried to spin this valid difference between the 2 candidates in her favor, while Obama did nothing but clarify and set the record straight, which the Fact Checker should respect.

And for the record, 'preparations' or groundwork are obviously very different from preconditions. Would anybody really disagree with that? And preconditions are a staple of Bush doctrine, and therefore Hillary's approach threatens to get us no further (and perhaps do as much damage as) the last 8 years.

Bottom line is this: Hillary clearly saw this an opportunity to twist Obama's message and his statements, while Obama's position is correct, and his words were clear and honest.

Posted by: Chris, DC | February 4, 2008 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I find it very hard trying to figure out how you gave Clinton one pinocchio for this. I don't feel she twisted what he said at all and think it should have been 2 for him and 0 for her. I also would like to find out more whether Obama weakened that nuclear bill against the interests of his constituents in favour of republicans and Exelon, and why he said it passed when it didn't.

Posted by: foreigner | February 4, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Sen. Barack Obama has erased Sen. Hillary Clinton's lead among Democrats nationally, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll out Monday. The two are in a virtual tie, with Obama at 49 percent and Clinton at 46 percent.

The survey represents a dramatic turnaround in the race from a few months ago when Clinton had a significant edge over Obama.

With 1681 delegates up for grab, what Candidate do you believe will accumulate the most delegates on Super Tuesday?


Posted by: PollM | February 4, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Wow, the spin here is amazing!! Mr. Dobbs, how much does Obama pay you? The only one twisting words is you. Obama's stance shows his naivety and lack of global perspective. Not, surprising, where in his background would he have gotten that? Stop shovelling BS!!!

Posted by: brigittepj | February 4, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Anonymous | February 4, 2008 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Surprise. More lies and backtracking from Obama.

Fact Checker should fact check his whole campaign. I don't know if there is one honest, unqualified statement in there.

It's shocking to think that people will vote for a guy who gives a good speech without listening to the words coming out of his mouth.

If he makes it, and I hope he doesn't, Obama is going to be a weak, indecisive president who will get this country into a lot of trouble.

Posted by: dc | February 4, 2008 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Barrack's people have taken over the Digg. They are horrendous: they play a foul game. He is a liar and a theif. The people who play on his side are really being bamboozled by his charisma.

Posted by: jbvoter | February 4, 2008 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Obama's people are in places where they can get more media out. They bang boarding Digg and other sites with blogs. I have been fighting with logging on to blog for Hillary.

The media has not been covering the fact that Hillary has more leaders in government, non-profit organizations, unions and women's organizations endorsing her. Why is that?

Hillary has the backing of leaders around the country. They are behind her and Obama is behind bloggers and media insiders who dictate what the joe jane public get to see on television and on the internet. Why is that?

Believe it or not; MY AT&T Media Net does not even give 2008 news on Hillary Clinton. A Search only goes to Nov 2007 articles. I cannot get Mobile Web Media for Hillary and this is an Obamination!!!

Why is that?

Posted by: jbvoter | February 4, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Those who are unable to see the wisdom in what he is saying doesn't understand how this man thinks and works... we have very serious problems with some of these countries around the world and whilst our "politicians" scratch their heads, twiddle their thumbs whilst at the same time depicting the image of "we're the toughest so don't mess with us", thousands of people are dying and will continue to die. It's more important to maintain an image rather than look about what is in America's best interest, which by the way is to have positive and co-operative relationships with other countries. You know what, we have been so brain washed by the games of our politicians that we have lost sight of common sense... what is a better scenario for us? An ally or an enemy ... common sense people!

Posted by: nerakami | February 4, 2008 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Chris, DC: (from the FactChecker article): "Obama has tried to argue that Clinton is an adherent of the 'Bush-Cheney doctrine [of] not talking to leaders we don't like.' [Wilmington, De., speech, February 3, 2008.] But that is a distortion of what she actually said in the CNN/YouTube debate last July."

Less confused now why Obama got two Pinocchios? Multiple times he has claimed that Clinton's stance is to not talk to leaders we don't like, which is not what she gave as an answer to the debate question.

Posted by: Foobar | February 4, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

How about a Pinocchio for yourselves in characterizing Venezuela among the five worst dictatorships. there are easily 40 countries worse than Venezuela in Asia and Africa in terms of dictatorship. Moreover, Iran is more a theocracy than a dictatorship.

Posted by: djw3505 | February 4, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

A problem for us Dem voters is knowing what each meant by preconditions. A greater problem for all voters is the limits of our public knowledge, owing to the classified nature of past such negotiations. Recently declassified transcripts of Nixon's then Nat'l Security Adviser Kissinger's meetings with enemies (no quotes around enemies needed!) have been made available on In one that reads like a Chekhov script, Henry K tells Mao's main man of his regret that he couldn't oblige the Viet Cong Prez by arranging for our military to overthrow our South Vietnamese allies on its way out - (I paraphrase) Yes, yes, fewer people would likely die if we finish the job, but as I advised [No. Vietnam's president] I'm afraid we must leave that to his troops, fatigued as they surely are, I'm so sorry, I'm sure you understand, but for the message it would send our other alliances, we surely would help..." Where are my smelling salts? Seriously, once I digested it, it made sense both in terms of secrecy and outcome - but only because our govt had gotten itself into such an amoral pickle. Would it not bring depth to the debates on negotiating with our enemies to discuss such real instances?

Posted by: jhbyer | February 4, 2008 6:27 PM | Report abuse

What planet are you Hillary lovers on? Hillary gets endorsed by democrats #1 enemy (George W), her husband praises Bush Sr. like a god, and you people want her to be Prez. MY GOD WAKE UP. Anyone that votes for one of the major republican candidates or for Hillary are voting for 4 more years of Bush! We sure don't need another Bush in the white house!

Posted by: Robertdouble | February 4, 2008 6:29 PM | Report abuse

All of obama's claims need to be researched.he claims he was against the war. but he was not in the senate, so he is just blowing wind. he probably would have gone along with the republicans. he also needs to do some explaining about the slumlord rezko. he claims he only worked 5 months for him??? then how is it that rezko helped him buy his house. the media has let obama mouth off, but has no researched and put him to task like they have hillary. hillary is most experienced than obama. she will work hard for all americans. hillary's health care is better planned. she has what it takes to lead on day one. GO HILLARY GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: melody, Snohomish, wa | February 4, 2008 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Dobbs seems to have left out the post debate spin by the Hillary camp which to my ears was far more egregious, far more widespread, was far more promoted by the mainstream media until they took the time review what Obama actually said.

The Team Clinton has a habit of saying something, pivoting wildly before settling on what might pass as a plausible version of what they did not say.

As usual, you give Pinocchios according to the weather, windspeed, sunrise/sunset tables, fishing reports, and Aunt Maybelle's Ouija board with a side of Magic Eight Ball.

Posted by: jade_7243 | February 4, 2008 7:56 PM | Report abuse

CHRIS of DC makes an excellent point that "preparations" and "homework" are not to be confused with "preconditions". My sense is voters have not had cause to consider the differences, much less the disturbing possibility that "preconditions" have no history in American diplomacy before Bush. Iran met Bush's preconditions for talks and what happened? THE PRECONDITIONS MOVED. After the NIE cleared them, Bush now says they have to prove they don't even want to know how nuclear weapons are made - knowledge any developed nation owes itself to gather. [Our non-nuclear allies know how to make them, should ours or their alliance with us disappear.] Remember how not invading Iraq was *preconditioned* on their proving another negative? No WMDs? Are "preconditions" more than a Bush bluff? Has Bush infected our discourse with a bogus consideration?

Posted by: jhbyer | February 4, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse

To put it more positively, the nation needs someone with sound, rather than ideologic, economic judgment, integrity, vision, and a philosophy of government that embraces, rather than divides, all Americans.

I agree with Romney that McCain in spite of his protests declined to endorse the surge or the concept of the U.S. remaining in Iraq, while Romney and Senator Lugar have always seen our commitment as potentially long term. Their language was completely different from McCain's who was hedging his bets when he thought the tide was turning against our presence in Iraq. And I see no evidence of principle or integrity on the part of McCain, who said what he needed to get elected in Arizonia and is doing the same now.

Romney was right about immigration. McCain pontificated but wouldn't even pay a firm using legal American labor, fairly revealing about his commitment to his words.

The American people might go for Romney because they sense authenticity. Right now, that's the Republican Party's only hope. And I'm not saying I support Romney. His future will depend upon his selection of running mate, for in that he will signal the country the direction he truly plans to head.

(I forgot to mention Thompson... he's another one taken down even in the Republican Party by his embrace of a social conservative agenda.)

Posted by: enzospice | February 4, 2008 9:13 PM | Report abuse

Obama is completely manufactured in a way that he says something which his supporters can parse out. Consider the Andy Griffith "Face in the Crowd" moment when he was relaxed and honest with the Nevada paper. He really loves Ronald Reagan. Read why he says that people voted for Reagan.

"I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

The excesses and growth of the government were what the Democrats did. It was Medicare, Civil Rights, the Great Society, the Environmental Movement, Progressive taxation, Government Regulation of Corporations and Gay Rights. Calling them excesses is Republican language. Most Democrats didn't think they went far enough. Clarity refers to Democrats concerns with Watergate, Vietnam, supporting Dictators, basing our economy on carbon fuels and fighting for our rights.

Posted by: Max Star | February 4, 2008 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Does any one thinks Obama can unite both Democrats and Republican? How does that work? Looks like he split Democratic Party half ....talking is easy than showing. You can't be so ambitious....first, he has to prove himself as a first time senator. So far he hasn't made any changes in Washington as a one can believe.

Posted by: HK | February 4, 2008 11:04 PM | Report abuse

Hillary Clinton has lately been loudly proclaiming her fealty to the Democratic Party's best traditions on human rights.

However, just two years ago, Hillary--the purported "expert" on international relations--said there should be "lawful authority" for torture in some cases.

(See, for example,

Her stand was opposite to that of every other major Democratic presidential candidate in 2007-2008, and the heat she took for it caused her to make one of her famous "flip flops."

Posted by: Martinedwinandersen | February 4, 2008 11:23 PM | Report abuse

This is so detrimental to our POLITICAL SYSTEM. Reporters such as this reporter, should never be allowered to write a column especially with the heading of...FACT CHECKER ... as he reads into statements for the benefit of his favorite candidate !! He is obvious a Barack Hussein Obama supporter!!

Posted by: yojoe | February 5, 2008 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Hey JBVoter!
As the saying goes:"It takes a thief 2 catch a thief (it also,may I add, takes a liar 2 catch a liar)".If that saying is true as usually is the case,then u JBV,must be a liar and a thief.Senator Obama is not a thief.Lying? All politicians tell the "truth".Since most of them never fullfill all their campaign promises,so it seems as if they lied.But they fullfill some of the campaign promises,so they are also partly truthful.Charismatic yes Obame is,but so is Mit Romney goodlooking does this make Mit a thief and a liar? Hillary is beautiful and smart,that does not make her a thief and a liar. What I see is a deranged man with a deep inferiority complex.I suggest u visit a shrink, otherwise u may end up at skid row if that is not where u are already at.I wish u a quick recovery from alcoholism.

Posted by: Ali Baba | February 6, 2008 12:17 AM | Report abuse

Senator Clinton is ABSOLUTELY right on this. If she were president and accepted to meet without preconditions with someone say like CHAVEZ it would be used as a propaganda tool in the entire region. I am Latin American and I live in Latin America, believe me, I know. The president of the United States cannot expose herself or himself to that. He would be mocked and criticized in the entire world especially among the Europeans for such a "rookie or weak female move". But then, that is MR. Barack FOR you, shooting from the hip, to sound hip.
He did twist and is twisting her words regarding this matter as late as of last night during that speech after Super Tuesday in which he looked flustered, angry, frustrated. She is connecting with people even though all these big guns (The Kennedys, Oprah, Clooney, blah, blah, blah... are campaigning for him and he can't figure out why everybody is not falling for his suave and debonaire and supposedly "fresh approach to politics".
Give me a break...pLEASE.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 6, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Senator Obama gave a true picture in his speech last night of what ills our society namely,race problems.Some people try to hide it in the closet but it always surfaces now and then when people become angry and at their worst.Expecting to get rid of it in one generation is a daydream and merely wishing it away is like building castles in the air.By identifying it as a problem, Senator Obama showed that we can tackle the race issue as grown ups.We are waiting to hear the views of Senator Clinton as well as Senator McCain.

Posted by: RingoStar | March 19, 2008 8:33 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Lucas hpssb | April 20, 2008 7:03 AM | Report abuse

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